By Catherine Morrissey, UoL employee and Secretary of University of London IWGB

The University of London IWGB has put in a complaint about UoL’s recent handling of the ballot on the Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE), which we believe was illegal. Our aim is to have the ballot declared void, and for UoL to have to run the process again in a fairer way – enabling IWGB members to participate and have a voice.

As an independent, democratic union, our sole purpose is to assert the rights of our members and to act on their behalf to improve working conditions at UoL. We do this every day, not just by putting pressure on management, but also through hours of assistance on a personal level. We’re open and inclusive and will stand up for our members – which is why so many people are joining.

IWGB organised the initial ICE request, which should have created a forum in which all University employees would be directly informed and consulted over major issues that affect us. As a non-recognised but large group on campus, IWGB intends to represent our members on this forum: particularly, to convey their dissatisfaction with the backroom deal that was done over London Weighting. But the way the ICE request has been handled is in effect cutting out IWGB, preventing us from participating in a meaningful way. In the following blog post I’ll explain what was wrong with the process, what the ICE Regulations actually are (!) and why IWGB is taking a stand.

The background
On 29 January this year, University of London staff were suddenly, and in most cases unexpectedly, informed that the University was about to run a ballot to do with information and consultation of employees.

Everyone, it said, would get a chance to vote in the ballot – but there was no opportunity to comment or ask questions via the University’s intranet post, no University manager nominated to answer queries, and no all-staff meeting or other communication dedicated to explaining what was going on and why. A one-page intranet post was all we were given. The ballot commenced just two business days later and was only open for one working week.

Scale this up for a minute and imagine being asked to vote in a nationwide election where you don’t know what it’s for, how it came about and what the candidates will actually be doing once elected, and you begin to see a problem with this approach.

To some of us, however, the announcement wasn’t totally out of the blue – although as I’ll go on to explain, aspects of it were certainly a surprise. I am one of 162 University employees who signed a petition in November 2014, to force the University to set up an Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) forum. Alongside others, I took the petition round to colleagues and I personally submitted it to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC – the government body that oversees requests under the ICE Regulations 2004) on 11 November 2014.

It’s worth outlining briefly at this point what the ICE regulations are and why this request came about. As the name implies, the Regulations place a statutory requirement on an employer to inform and consult with its staff over issues which affect them.

The biggest such issue at the time was London Weighting, and that was the catalyst for the request. The University was already consulting and negotiating on this issue with its two recognised unions, UNISON and UCU – but many other people, IWGB members especially, would have welcomed the opportunity to engage in the debate. Indeed, many of us had hoped to have it added to the agenda of the All-Staff Meeting in October 2014, so that we could hear from University management but also put across our own views. But rather than talk to staff at the ASM, University management simply cancelled the meeting and went to ground. Requests for the meeting to be rescheduled as a matter of urgency fell on deaf ears.

So IWGB organised the ICE request, garnering signatures from our own members but also from others who wanted a voice. Under the Regulations, if at least 10% of employees make the request it is legally binding on the employer. Our request was declared valid by the CAC around the end of November.

The process
After a valid request has been made, the next steps in the process are:

1. The employer has one month to prove, if it wishes to attempt to do so, that it already has arrangements in place to inform and consult with its employees. Crucially, these arrangements have to cover everyone and must have been approved by the workforce.
(The University could not claim that its voluntary recognition of UNISON and UCU fell under this heading – neither one of those unions represents staff of all grades, and at no time have all UoL staff been asked whether they are happy with these two unions being the sole bodies privileged with speaking on our behalf.)
2. Assuming there is no prior arrangement as defined above, the employer then has three months in which to organise the appointment or election of Negotiating Representatives. These representatives, who are supposed to represent the interests of all the employees, will then meet with the employer and come to an agreement which defines what the ICE forum will cover (there are minimum statutory requirements) and how the election of Employee Reps will be organised.
3. That done, the employer has six months to organise elections for Employee Representatives – i.e., those people who will actually attend regular meetings with the employer and be the channel through which everyone is informed and consulted. There should be one Rep for every fifty employees.
(However, bear in mind that the Employee reps will be bound by whatever has been agreed in stage 2, and that the way the forum will be constituted (apart from the number of reps it contains) will also be decided in stage 2. So it’s crucial that that stage is administered properly, in line with both the letter and spirit of the Regulations.)

What went wrong?
On 19 December, about one month after the initial request was declared valid, I wrote to the University’s Director of HR, Kim Frost, and suggested that people who had signed the original petition would be happy to meet with him in the New Year in order to discuss stage 2. I eventually received a reply from Migy Gaudio (Head of HR (Corporate Services)) to the effect that UoL didn’t think a meeting with staff was necessary and that they would communicate with all staff in due course.

Little did any of us know, however, that UoL management were in fact secretly discussing the employees’ request with another group – the representatives of UNISON and UCU*. Together, UNISON, UCU and UoL came up with a proposal which, in my view, was specifically designed to shut down the possibility of open engagement in the negotiating forum at stage 2. Under this scheme, two reps each from the UNISON and UCU committees would make up the employee side of the negotiating group, effectively making it nothing more than an extension of the existing consultation arrangements they already take part in.

The ICE Regulations stipulate that all employees should be entitled to shape and take part in this forum. That being the case, IWGB members at the University expected that we would have the opportunity to campaign for IWGB candidates to be included in the mix. That did not happen.

No one else had been given the opportunity to put themselves forward: staff simply got to say yes or no. The way the question was phrased made ‘yes’ seem like the right answer – especially as there was no clarity about what would happen if you voted no, and furthermore it was obvious that the University could see how you voted: thus deterring a number of ‘no’ voters from taking part at all.

This is all clearly contrary to the spirit of openness and inclusion that is inherent in the Regulations, and is therefore grounds for our complaint.

The role of the unions
This is a long blog post, but bear with me!

This brings us back to 29 January 2015. Approximately 45 minutes before the University even announced its proposal to all staff via the intranet, UNISON and UCU members received an email communication from their unions, telling them about the ICE request, announcing that members of their branch committees had been nominated as reps, and urging them to vote ‘yes’ to what the University was proposing.

This was the first alarm bell: how could these organisations have been so well-informed about this that they had time to put together a slate, coordinate the composition of almost-identical campaign emails, produce joint campaign materials and secure permission to campaign inside staff offices during the working day, when the rest of UoL’s employees (including, it must be pointed out, their own ordinary members) were still completely in the dark? Why, when the initial request had been signed by a broad group of cross-university employees, and when the named signatory was the Secretary of a third union, was the negotiating committee designed to be made up of these two unions only? And why would two groups claiming to represent the interests of staff – in other words, to challenge and question the University’s decisions on our behalf – be taking such a similar line to our employer?

UNISON and UCU’s communications on the subject of the ICE ballot were confusing, to say the least. Whether this was a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters and confuse their members and non-members alike, or was just a result of a lack of understanding of how it should work, only they can say.

On the one hand they attempted to persuade their members that the ICE request was a good thing for their unions, that they were delighted to have this opportunity to represent and engage with non-members, and that it was an ‘extension of [their] current framework’. On the other hand, they claimed that it was a threat to the JNCC (the Joint Negotiating and Consultation Committee – the body through which they exclusively negotiate with UoL), that if you voted ‘no’ staff would not be consulted on important issues at all in future, and that campaigners for an open forum, myself in particular, were being dishonest and anti-trade union in advocating this.

Given that the ICE is supposed to be a forum that is representative of all staff, it’s entirely possible that some people on it may not be union members. That’s their right. However, as IWGB members know, IWGB does not in any way dispute union members’ right to have their voices heard in discussions over issues that affect staff: indeed, IWGB has been pushing for voluntary recognition at the University since our branch here was founded. We see proof every day that union membership is essential for workers of all grades, and would argue strongly that the best way for staff to be represented is by joining a union – at UoL, by joining IWGB. To accuse the Secretary of a certified Independent Trade Union of being anti-union is patently absurd, but nonetheless an effective way of making people suspicious of our arguments.

We in IWGB would be delighted if the University would voluntarily recognise us and allow us to participate in the existing negotiating structure, but they have repeatedly rebuffed our attempts to open up a dialogue. There are three unions at the University of London, of which IWGB (which also represents the majority of outsourced workers) is the largest, but we alone are not recognised by UoL – although it’s not unusual for an employer to recognise more than two unions (UCL, for example, recognises UNISON, UCU and UNITE).

Recognition is entirely voluntary and would save the University a lot of administrative hassle. If IWGB was recognised, as we have been asking, we would not have had to organise the ICE request at all. We believe our members have the right for their union to be consulted on University matters, and therefore intend to use the ICE forum to make our members’ voices heard. This objective is inherently pro-union, in aiming to expand the union voice at UoL.

Furthermore, we have never claimed that the ICE forum could replace or supplant the JNCC as a negotiating body. The ICE Regulations in no way affect voluntary agreements the employer may have made with other unions. In fact, unions are not mentioned anywhere in the Regulations.

One possible outcome we hoped for in putting in the ICE request was that the University would take the path of least resistance and open up negotiations on LW to include other staff reps, not just UNISON and UCU. But it was not our aim, nor would it have been possible, for the JNCC to be dismantled and for UNISON and UCU to be cut out of the negotiating procedure. The University did not open up negotiations more widely, so we are left with the ICE forum as the only means of conveying our messages to them.

What I have said, and still believe, is that had all staff been able to communicate properly with management on this issue of London Weighting, had we been consulted, the University would have received a pretty strong message from across the board that the settlement they were negotiating through the JNCC was not acceptable. IWGB for one would have been able to convey, through formal channels, that our members were prepared to strike in order to get a better deal. I firmly believe that this would have made all the difference – and that it still could do so. But only if we are properly represented. That is why IWGB wants the ballot to be run again.

The University and its recognised unions ran a coordinated campaign, designed to shut down genuine communication with staff, to confuse and scare those who were interested in the idea of improving it, and to completely turn off those who had no prior knowledge of the idea – as shown by the fact that the majority of people didn’t even vote. This is wholly contrary to what the ICE Regulations were designed to do, and it’s on these grounds that we have complained to the CAC.

What this whole fiasco shows is that an ICE forum is desperately needed, to open up direct communication between UoL management and staff. Indeed, the recent staff survey showed that poor communication ranks about equally with poor London Weighting in the list of problems UoL employees have with the way the University is currently being run.

It’s unfortunate that, rather than taking this opportunity to genuinely engage with all the people that work here, University management has instead taken the chance to undermine the only forum through which we could genuinely communicate with them. If our complaint is upheld, we hope that UoL will have to re-run stage 2 more in the proper spirit – and I will be campaigning for a slate of IWGB candidates to be elected as reps in the forum.

*The UCU and UNISON committees are to a large extent controlled by a selection of individuals called ‘Regional Officers’, who have not been elected by UCU and UNISON members.